Better Biology – What’s Working Well

While most of my upper school colleagues are away on various trips around the globe for Experience Week, I am staying in Hong Kong this year. I don’t mind so much as it gives me the opportunity to do things like update my blog! Here’s what I’ve been thinking lately about my Better Biology program as we are about to wrap up the second unit:

What’s Working Well

1. Coffee Chats

coffee chat croppedThis was an opportunity to work with students in small groups. I made homogeneous groups of four to five students based on where they were along the learning pathway. I used their checklists, completion tracking reports and journals to evaluate who was around the same spot in the course and then spent about 20-25 minutes with each group around the “coffee table” with some drinks and snacks, chatting about biology. It took two periods. I asked them to start off by putting their names down where they felt they were along the learning pathway both as a visual for them to see how much farther they had to go, and a confirmation for me that I had created appropriate groups. Sometimes this was true, sometimes not. I learned that most students were not at the point I thought they would be yet when I had scheduled the chat into the mastery unit plan. I will consider moving coffee chats a bit later in the unit next time and hopefully doing it more than once. Then I asked them two very simple guiding questions:

  • What have you found easy so far?
  • What have you found challenging?

After they each answered the first question, we spent a bit of the discussing the topics they had identified as “easy” to see if they had really learned the concepts and clarify any misunderstandings. It was amazing! They could just rhyme off the principles of the cell theory no problem without having studied beforehand. Then we worked on the parts they found difficult. Unsurprisingly they mostly wanted to go over the math of calculating cell sizes and magnification! But this was perfect because when I have taught this topic the “old-fashioned” way, there was never any time to sit with each student and ensure they knew how to do the calculations. This way I was there to help them one-on-one AND so were their peers. After I went over a couple of practice problems, I had them work together to solve a few more. I think the quizzes really helped the students identify their weakness in this area which is great because that is what I had intended for the quizzes to be – assessment for learning. The feedback from this activity was very positive and both the students and I enjoyed it and had fun. I will definitely be doing this again.




2. Red/Yellow/Green Light

As a very quick and easy self-assessment, I had each student fill out a survey that would identify them as Red Light, Yellow Light or Green Light in the course. I got the idea from my MYP coordinator who used it to gauge student progress on the Personal Project. Before I gave out the survey I reassured the students that they could be completely honest and should not feel as if they would be in trouble if they identified as a Red Light. I made it clear that this course was to be completed at their own speed and that we would work together to make sure they were working at an appropriate pace. I reminded them that as their learning coach, I would do whatever necessary to help them be successful. Here were the descriptions for each level:


  • RED – I am falling behind. I will not have the minimum requirements done before the test and I probably won’t be able to write it on the due date.
  • YELLOW – I am a bit behind where I thought I would be, but I can complete the minimum requirements for this unit if I do some for homework and still be ready for the test.
  • GREEN – I am staying on task and I will finish my required activities and be ready for the test on the due date.

I tried to predict what each student would circle and recorded my predictions. I was on target for most of the students, but there were a few surprises. Nobody circled red despite the two or three I thought would. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not, but we will see how things go. Some students circled yellow despite the fact that I thought they would have chosen green which was also interesting. A couple of students felt they were between green and yellow. I like this quick assessment method as I now have a list of students to keep a close watch on and I will make sure to work with them a little bit every class.

3. QUESTS and Peer Tutoring

QUESTS are brilliant. As I have previously mentioned, my main struggle with creating this differentiated/mastery/blended learning course is that at the end of the day, I still have to prepare students to be assessed by a high stakes exam. Although I now have time to incorporate way more creative assessment techniques (infographics, animations, blog posts etc…), I still want to make sure my students know how to confidently answer the test questions. I don’t want there to be any surprises. Thus I have created QUESTS. Not a test – not a quiz – something in between. Quizzes in this course are more for the students than for me. They are formative and they help the students gauge their own understanding of the material. They can try them twice per class before they are locked out. We go over their results together when possible and I try to suggest activities they can do to improve their understanding of the material before they can rewrite the quiz two days later. They are basic multiple choice quizzes that provide instant feedback. QUESTS, on the other hand, are hand written short answer questions based on past papers. I mark them myself in the style of an IB examiner (which I am). They are still formative, and they still give the students great feedback on their learning. Students are still required to achieve mastery (80%) before they can move on. I create three versions of each QUEST and so far have not needed to create any more than that. However, the difference is that these QUESTS are more useful for me than quizzes. For example, after the deadline for QUEST #1, there were five students who had yet to write it and 4 students who had not achieved mastery. The next class I assigned each student who had scored below mastery level a peer tutor in the class and gave them an activity to work on together. I put the five students who had yet to write it together in a group and sat them with me the whole class with a list of tasks they each had to complete to be ready to write the QUEST the next period. This worked really well. All the students who worked with a peer tutor passed the QUEST a second time bar one. I then worked with that student personally during the next period and she was very successful on her third attempt. All the tutors reported that working with their assigned student helped reinforce the concepts and even helped them answer a few questions they had been unsure about. All the students who were tutored felt more confidant with the material. I will continue to do this for each QUEST.

4. Checklist

checkmarkMy colleague Sharon showed me a cool feature of MOODLE completion tracking known as a Checklist. This feature allows students to see a progress bar as they move through the course. There are many different settings you can use for this feature. I have set it so that there is one checklist per unit. Every time a student completes a MOODLE activity to the required standard, the checklist automatically updates their progress. However, I have it set so that I have to approve each and every activity before the green progress bar moves forward. It’s a bit tedious for me, but in a good way. It forces me to look at every single student’s every single activity! And the students will bug me about it if they have not “progressed.” They want that little reward and why not? So in a way it motivates me to stay on top of my assessment and their progress. But with 23 students in the class, it can be a bit time consuming.

5. A Layer Activities

I finally finished marking the unit portfolios from last unit. OOPS. Ok I got a bit behind as I was focused on grade 12 IAs. I am so impressed with the effort students have been putting into their work! My favorite thing to grade is the A Layer Activities. These are the assignments that allow students to make connections between biology, the environment, society, morals, ethics, economics, etc… These are the differentiated assessment methods we IB teachers “don’t have time for.” Just because they will not be externally moderated by the IB does not mean they are not worthwhile and valid learning opportunities for the students. They help them think critically about the material and (I hope) develop a more meaningful understanding of the concept they are exploring. I often hear complaints from IB teachers that the content is “a mile wide, but an inch deep.” Here’s your chance to go deeper! Each A layer activity is based on the guiding unit question and the top tiers of Bloom’s Taxonomy (create/evaluate). Some are technology based and others are not. Some are individual and others can be done as a partner/group. Examples of the options from the last unit include:

  • creating an infographic to inform the public about antibiotic resistance
  • creating additional entries to Darwin’s journals based on current evidence for evolution as well as how we as a global society are responding to his theory
  • evaluating the study of the “peppered moth” as an example of bad science based on Ben Goldachre’s blog and Ted talk
  • evaluating a case study of microevolution started by the Grant’s in the 1970s

And of course students are always encouraged to create their own A layer activity. The only thing about these activities that have not been done well is the referencing. Despite the very clear expectations in the rubric, students are forgetting to give credit where it is due. I will need to remind them about this and give a lesson on it if necessary.

There are just a few highlights.

Next post: What Needs Work!

Image URLs:—graphic.png


One thought on “Better Biology – What’s Working Well

  1. All of this sounds fantastic! Where are you finding the time! Quick question: I love the coffee talk idea, but what to the other students do while you are working with your small student group? What type of activity do you give the other students so that you can focus on your small group?

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